10/04/2012 4:54PM

Hawthorne: Alternation a favorite with low profile in Gold Cup

Tom Keyser
Alternation has beaten some of the top horses in the handicap division this year.

STICKNEY, Ill. – Quietly and out of the spotlight, first at Remington Park and now at Hawthorne Race Course, trainer Donnie Von Hemel is guiding Alternation to what he hopes will be a start in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

It’s fitting that Alternation would chug along in relative obscurity. During a four-race stakes win streak earlier this year, Alternation was favored just once. And though he beat Ron the Greek, winner of the Santa Anita Handicap and Stephen Foster this year, and handled a solid group in the Pimlico Special, Alternation’s name rarely is mentioned when talk turns to the best older horses in the country.

That’s not likely to change, even if Alternation wins the Grade 2, $500,000 Hawthorne Gold Cup on Saturday. The East Coast still has Flat Out, Mucho Macho Man, and Ron the Greek, while out West, Game On Dude awaits. Von Hemel and Alternation’s owner-breeder, the Pin Oak Stable, would relish the chance to take them on in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

“If we put in a good performance here, then wouldn’t we be going out there with as good a chance as anyone?” Von Hemel wondered earlier this week.

Alternation, who drew post 1 and will have regular rider Luis Quinonez in the irons, is one of seven entered in the Gold Cup. Alternation and another one of the prominent players, Nates Mineshaft, will be trying the Gold Cup’s 1 1/4-mile distance for the first time. Cease, Mister Marti Gras, and perhaps Pool Play look like they could win. Fly Lexis Fly, a 3-year-old most recently second in the Super Derby, is a less obvious player. Long-distance specialist Eldaafer appears to be prepping for the BC Marathon.

Von Hemel shipped Alternation to Chicago from Oklahoma on Sept. 28 and gave Alternation a quick half-mile work on Wednesday. It was a mistimed workout pattern, Von Hemel said, that might have led to Alternation’s worst showing of the season, when he finished fifth in the Stephen Foster.

“I worked him Tuesday instead of Wednesday that week, and he worked slow,” Von Hemel said. “I think that race was my fault as much as anyone’s.”

Workouts also bear mentioning with regard to Cease, who finished a close third in the 2011 Hawthorne Gold Cup while making just the sixth start of his career. After landing in races beyond his best distance range and away from his best surface – dirt – in late spring, Cease had another good Saratoga, winning an allowance race and finishing a hard-charging third in the Grade 1 Woodward on Sept. 1. Cease shows only one published work since, a half-mile on Oct. 1 at Keeneland, but logged two more works, trainer Al Stall said, that went unrecorded because no clocker was present.

“He got beat a half-length in this race last year and I have to think he’s a better horse mentally and seasoning-wise than before,” Stall said.

Nates Mineshaft was the surprise horse of the winter and spring, exploding out of the claiming ranks to capture the New Orleans Handicap by more than seven lengths in track record time, and showing that performance was no fluke with a win in the Lone Star Park Handicap and a close third in the Stephen Foster. But Saturday’s start will be Nates Mineshaft’s first since June 16, and he shows just four workouts for the longest race of his career.

“He’s coming along okay, but I wish I had a little more time,” said trainer Austin Smith. “If he were 100 percent I’d be confident he’d get a mile and a quarter, but we’ve had hiccups. Things could have gone better between the time he got back to the track and this race. But he’s a competitor.”

Mister Marti Gras ran into a freakishly strong performance from Middie when second last out in the Washington Park Handicap, and was less than a length behind Cease in the 2011 Gold Cup. Pool Play came home third in the Washington Park, but gets back to dirt for the first time since upsetting the 2011 Stephen Foster Handicap.

“He’s a big, strong horse that needs a lot of training, and it hasn’t surprised me that it’s taken him a little while to get his form back,” said trainer Mark Casse, who has gotten three starts into Pool Play following a year-plus layoff.

The Gold Cup goes as race eight of nine, with $100,000 turf stakes carded immediately before and after. Race 9 is the Robert Carey Memorial, a 1 1/8-mile race that drew a field of 12. Willcox Inn, who probably would be favored, is cross-entered in the Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland and likely to run there, trainer Mike Stidham said. Suntracer, who was second to Willcox Inn in the 2011 Hawthorne Derby, his lone start over the course, seems the most likely winner, but Nikki’s Sandcastle and Hotep have a chance.

Romacaca, winner of the Modesty and seventh in the Grade 1 Beverly D., is the one to beat in the 1 1/16-mile Indian Maid. But improving 4-year-old Kepi, who has demonstrated a fondness for the Hawthorne lawn, might be able to take her down.